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Game changer – ‘Jump Shot: The Kenny Sailors Story’

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The evolution of sport is a fascinating thing. In some ways, the games we love are trapped in amber. The size of the court or the field stays the same. Certain distances haven’t ever really changed – 60 feet from home to first, 10 yards for a first down, 10 feet from floor to rim.

But in other ways – the ways the games are actually played – have seen significant alterations over the years, even as most sporting stalwarts are staunch traditionalists with regards to how things are done. “We do them this way because that’s the way we’ve always done them” has long been the rallying cry of the athletic establishment.

But there will always be players who challenge the status quo. Players who, for whatever reason, deem it necessary to do things in a different way. Players who see the opportunity to find success by way of something new.

Players like Kenny Sailors.

You’d be forgiven for not recognizing that name, but as you’ll discover in the documentary “Jump Shot: The Kenny Sailors Story” – written and directed by Jacob Hamilton and available for rental at – you are almost certainly familiar with his work. You see, there is a sizeable contingent out there that believes that Sailors, a man born nearly 100 years ago, is the inventor of the modern jump shot.

The doc itself is a brisk run through a remarkable life, one that features some names and faces you absolutely will recognize – NBA legends such as Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry (who also serves as an executive producer on the film) – as well as a number of other NBA figures, former players and league historians. Through archival footage, photographs and interviews, “Jump Shot” presents a strong case that in many ways, Sailors is the progenitor of how modern basketball is played.

He was born in 1921, moving with his family to the small farming town of Hillsdale, Wyoming. Basketball was the game for the farm kids of the day, but Kenny – who stood half-a-foot shorter than his older brother – was unable to get off the two-handed set shots that were de rigueur at the time. And so, he … jumped. It seems inconceivable today that people hadn’t done it before – and Sailors himself cheerfully concedes that others may well have done it before him – but there’s no denying that he was the one who brought it into the mainstream.

How, you ask? Well, Sailors made his way to the University of Wyoming in 1940 and helped turn that team into a powerhouse, one that won the 1943 NCAA title. Sailors and his jump shot – immortalized in an iconic photograph in Life Magazine from one of the games in Madison Square Garden – were named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. He spent the next two years in the Marines, returning after the end of WWII to play a final year for Wyoming.

From there, he went on to the NBA, bouncing around and playing for seven teams in five years before leaving the league. He and his wife moved to Alaska and spent 35 years there; he was a teacher and coach who, among other things, served as a major evangelist for girls’ high school basketball. After he retired from teaching and coaching, he returned to Wyoming and lived as a beloved icon until his passing at the age of 95.

“Jump Shot” makes a pretty compelling case for Sailors as the man who first popularized the shot. While there were others who had left their feet to shoot the ball, these were more running shots and flips by big men. What Sailors did – halting his forward momentum and jumping straight up before releasing the ball overhead one-handed – is instantly recognizable as what we call a jump shot today.

Those interviewed for the film certainly agree. Guys like Curry and Durant and Nowitzki are among the best shooters EVER; if they say you’ve got a jump shot, you’ve got a jump shot. The segments where they watch archival video clips of Sailors at work – noting not just his shot but also his handle, by the way – are a delight; they SEE it in a way you and I never will. Game recognizes game, even if one such game took place almost 70 years ago.

And there’s an undeniable charm to Sailors himself, an affable and self-effacing person who both begrudgingly enjoys the attention his innovation draws while also being generally bemused by the whole thing. He’s a smart guy who is country to his bones – not the man you’d have expected to revolutionize basketball, but in retrospect, an undeniably effective ambassador.

The earlier days of sport left room for wild innovation, before big money and an ever-shrinking world largely homogenized our athletic endeavors. The jump shot of Kenny Sailors deserves to be celebrated alongside the forward pass in football and the curveball in baseball, quantum leaps that helped redefine the way their respective games were played.

“Jump Shot” offers us an engaging glimpse at a largely forgotten piece of sports history. The story of Kenny Sailors, both as a ballplayer and as a man, is one that deserves to be told. Thanks to Jacob Hamilton and the rest of his team, it has received a first-rate telling. Fans of basketball and sports history will be delighted by this film, a reminder that the games we watch today are what they are thanks to past players willing to innovate and refusing to simply “do it the way we’ve always done it.”

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 20 April 2020 12:55


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